By The Rev. Suzy Ward, St. Paul’s, Visalia
In preparing for a class on the Book of Common Prayer when the topic was the Rite of Reconciliation of the Penitent, I came across a phrase I had never heard before, “fencing the table.” “Fencing the table” is a way to close off communion from people who do not share similar theological understandings. A pastor might also, “fence the table” for a guest that visits if they are unknown to the community. It is thought that such an act protects both the individual and the sacrament of communion from being received by someone who is not prepared. But my question is, would Jesus have excluded anyone who gathered in the upper room? Did Jesus build fences around himself and his community to protect his message?
Our fears often cause us to want to build fences or to put up barriers to exclude. The Gospels, on the other hand, are filled with stories of Jesus crossing boundaries and borders, including others whom society had excluded.
For two months this winter our Parish Hall housed homeless individuals overnight. The doors were opened at 9 PM even though individuals started lining up as soon as it was dark. Because it was permitted as a “warming center,” we were only allowed to give our guests blankets for bedding. We also gave our guests snacks and coffee. Most came in, took a couple of blankets, found a place to lay down and after some companionship with fellow guests, they settled in for the night. By 7 AM or shortly after, all the guests were gone and we cleaned up the hall to prepare for the next night.
The first night we had one person, who wasn’t homeless but suffered from mental illness so that he wandered the streets at night until he found his way home. But within a week our guests numbered over 20. By the end of the month, after only two weeks of being open, there were over 40 guests sleeping in the hall. During the two months the Center was open (from January 14 to April 17) the numbers grew nightly. The most guests that were welcomed in the Center on a single night was 91 individuals. At the conclusion of this two month pilot project, the average was 72 people a night.
Please don’t miss understand, this was a challenging project. There were nights when the police had to be called. There were individuals that we had to ask to leave and not return. A window was broken in the Hall one night. There were messes left that most of us would rather not have to touch. Yet overall, people appreciated the safety of the Hall and offered assistance in setting up and cleaning, and continually spoke words of thank you for the simple jester of opening a door on a cold night.
Why would a church do this? Why would a faith community open its doors to the homeless? Why would it willing endure the complaints of neighbors? The constant cleaning? Why would individuals, some from different faith communities and some from no faith community give so much of their own time and energy?
Well part of the reason might be explained if you had listened into the conversations that occurred last Sunday night when a dinner was held to say thank you to all the volunteers who had helped at the center. These volunteers had committed countless hours to staying up overnight to help with the supervision of the Center. At this dinner each of them shared what this experienced had meant to them. They told of how their nights of working had helped them to see, not unnamed homeless people on the street, but mothers with children, men who had lost their job, or individuals who were suffering from the choices they had made but still wanted and needed to be treated with grace and love. They spoke about learning to let go of their own mistrust of the, “other.” Many simply spoke about the transformation that had begun to occur in their lives brought about by Spirit opening their eyes and hearts to hope, offering it and receiving it. Some of the people that spoke of this transformation were the very guests who were attempting to let God show them a way to new life.
Now that we have moved back into an amazing brick building, we are learning that ministry in the world means building bridges to new places, tearing down fences, opening our gates and doors, and saying in new ways, “All Are Welcome.”